Monday, August 3, 2009

First Contact-Day One

So, what happens if the aliens land and say hello? That particular First Contact scenario would probably be a little too shocking for the populace, and the alarm it would raise would start the new relationship off on a decidedly wrong foot. Direct First Contact is all about timing and pacing. It is essentially a complex public relations event. I’ve been talking quite a bit recently about the Dr. Albert Harrison book “After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life.” Harrison is a psychologist. His examination of how individuals and society might react to First Contact is thorough and his insight is keen.

Dr. Harrison describes a few essential elements to First Contact. While he is mainly discussing this in a SETI signal based scenario, I think it applies to a Direct First Contact event as well. Harrison stresses that honest communication is the key.

It is critical that the announcement of First Contact provide the following:
-What is known
-What is not known
-Potential hazards
-Suggestions for proactive response

Harrison has clearly been studying crisis communication, because these are the classic elements of a crisis communications news conference. You let people know what you know and also what you still are investigating. You are honest and forthright. You discuss concerns along with positive elements. You provide reassurance to the public. You provide people with a proactive way to respond.
Could extraterrestrial visitors provide these needed elements? Perhaps, but probably not very effectively. The public would be completely caught up in the look and sound of extraterrestrials (assuming they could communicate in some form of speech we could understand). There would be very little attention paid to what they are saying, at least at first. Having a human being make the initial announcement makes sense. Direct First Contact would need to be a steady process: providing information, disproving the hoax, reassuring the public and setting up the framework for a formal introduction to the United Nations. This has to be done relatively quickly, perhaps in one day. It cannot occur all at once. There will need to be time to disprove the hoax. There will need to be time for the public to grasp this new reality and begin the process of acceptance and understanding.

A critical part of crisis communication is what I call filling the vacuum. In a disaster, or other sudden news event, there is often an information vacuum that develops in the first minutes after the sudden event. After a tornado strikes there is a period when the news media is desperate for information. The authorities have not arrived on the scene. There are no experts to talk to yet. It is essential that the people who are handling public relations asses the facts quickly and once they are confirmed provide those facts to the news media. If not, the media relies on the public to fill this role. The public can often be right, but people can also get it wrong. Exaggeration or misstating the facts are common problems when it comes to interviews with the public. This only gets worse as time goes on and rumors spread. A First Contact event needs to move fast enough to prevent this reaction. There will be a period where people are simply stunned. Correct information needs to be provided quickly and consistently. There needs to be a focal point for the event and the media needs to be properly handled.

I know many scientists would have an issue with PR people handling a Direct First Contact event. In the end, the public relations role would be relatively small when compared to the massive challenge that would follow the initial announcement. Scientists will be responsible for leading the world in a careful examination of the extraterrestrial visitors and how we fit into this new, busier universe. Leaders in government will need to build a new framework for international politics and world cooperation. Religious leaders will need to provide context and understanding. It should be trained communicators handling the First Contact announcement itself. It would be a public relations challenge like no other.

First Contact Extraterrestrial Proposal Idea Hello First Contact Alien Introduction Space Visitors

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